THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC Books
Empire of Death

Author David Bishop Cover image
ISBN# 0 563 48615 5
Published 2004
Featuring The fifth Doctor and Nyssa

Synopsis: Trying to visit the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Doctor and Nyssa are shocked when a ghost appears in the TARDIS, beckoning them to the Other Side...


Reviews

A Review by Finn Clark 22/3/04

On 8th September 1998, Finn Clark wrote:

"I believe that The Scarlet Empress will trigger a change in Doctor Who fiction. It will come slowly and the old school will not stop writing, but a new wave has been started. Perhaps only the odd book, here and there... but Doctor Who will be a lot richer for it. Stranger, too."
That was in my review of The Scarlet Empress. A perusal of the next few years' BBC Books would seem to prove me wrong, but in fact I was more correct than I could have guessed.

Virgin's NAs touched on the magic vs. science debate, but they were always SF at heart. The early BBC Books were no different, with werewolves and vampires in Vampire Science and Kursaal being the nearest they got to fantasy, but in 1998 Paul Magrs introduced a new paradigm. SF didn't vanish overnight, but almost every landmark 8DA since then has been magical/fantastical in some way. Interference and The Ancestor Cell chased up the War and Faction Paradox (the other big Cole-era theme), but see the following list of 8DAs:

The Scarlet Empress
Unnatural History
Autumn Mist
The Blue Angel
Shadows of Avalon
City of the Dead
Grimm Reality
The Adventuress of Henrietta Street
Mad Dogs and Englishmen
The Crooked World
Camera Obscura

This kind of thinking even influenced 'straight' Who novels. There's a rejection of technobabble. Books like The Burning and Casualties of War simply didn't bother explaining their supernatural-looking entities.

Until recently this was an 8DA-only phenomenon, but last year it spread to the PDAs. Empire of Death is the third PDA in a row to include supernatural elements (either real or apparent), after Wolfsbane and Deadly Reunion. Unfortunately, like Ghosts of N-Space before it, this book demonstrates that there are places where Doctor Who shouldn't go.

The novels have often tackled religion, but the afterlife is a whole other kettle of fish. Much of Empire of Death is like an M.R. James ghost story written by Terrance Dicks, dabbling its feet in a huge, huge subject but unable to go all the way because it's still a Doctor Who book. We have spiritual possession and conversations with the dead... and then the Doctor and Nyssa blast any possible atmosphere with technobabble scenes in the TARDIS and dimensional whifflegab. David Bishop couldn't win. To give us a literal afterlife would be horrifically wrong, but mundane explanations produce a book that's hollow.

On top of that, the book's boring. I enjoyed the last fifty pages or so, by which time it's degenerated into the usual Whoish runaround, but until then it's a ghost story without atmosphere. The prose has as much style as Amorality Tale and The Domino Effect, i.e. none at all. When you're writing a book like this that cries out for atmosphere and a few chills down the reader's spine, that's a big problem.

Its TARDIS crew doesn't help. The 5th Doctor and Nyssa are the Doctor and companion most widely regarded as boring, and this book seems determined to reinforce the stereotype. Nyssa's 'Observations and Analysis: A Journal' is a plodding monstrosity, though admittedly little more so than the chapters around it. The title is the giveaway. Anyone else would have called it a diary, but not Nyssa. Sure enough, her chosen prose style is bland and monotonous, never using a short word when she can use three technical ones instead. I grew up watching the 5th Doctor and Nyssa, but this book dented even my affection for them.

I worried for a while that this book might contradict Imperial Moon, set in 1878, but on reflection I don't think Bulis had the 5th Doctor meet Queen Victoria. There's foreshadowing of Frontios and Caves of Androzani that left me completely cold, though 'twould have felt less obtrusive in a richer novel.

Reading this book is like eating cardboard. It's completely humourless, again just like David Bishop's previous books. A smile or two would have made this a much easier read. The characters are all recognisable stereotypes, occasionally getting a little depth but never really making you care about 'em. The pages go past smoothly enough, but in an unengaging way that'll make you wonder why you're not reading M.R. James instead. If the Russell T. Davies series hadn't been commissioned, in ten years we'd have been calling this the kind of book that killed Doctor Who.


Haunted souls... by Joe Ford 28/3/04

It only occurred to me during Empire of Death that Nyssa is easily the most exploitable companion when it comes to writing a Past Doctor Adventure. There is no other assistant with such a list of undealt with issues. Thanks to the limited abilities of script editor Eric Saward the numerous tragedies in Nyssa's life have been left practically ignored. This seems a waste since those events were of an extreme dramatic nature and could have led into a powerful drama. The death of her step mother, her father, her entire planet... and worse to have the man who killed her father walking around in his body. It's just too much for one person to take. Dealing with these emotional scars was more than overdue. Thank God for David Bishop.

This novel is something of a dream come true for me. I have made no secret of my dislike of the fifth Doctor's era on television, chiefly because of an ineffectual Doctor and some very unlikable companions (the whinge-a-minute Tegan, sulky schoolboy Adric and the camp traitor Turlough). However I have a lot of time for Nyssa (as exemplified in my review of her character) because she was the most restrained and had the most potential of all of them despite much of it being unrealised. Bishop sets about rectifying this long overdue mistake and rather than pushing Nyssa to the sidelines (a popular trait) he pushes her right into the limelight and gives her character a thorough examination.

And the results are fascinating and a firm slap in the face for reviewers like Terrance Keenan who recently dismissed her as boring. Dealt with as dramatically as she is here Nyssa makes for an ideal companion, troubled, inquisitive, intelligent, brave and finally coming to terms with the heartache that she has been running from for years.

Bishop has a penchant for selecting practically ignored combinations of characters (such as using Dodo in Who Killed Kennedy and the third Doctor and Sarah in Amorality Tale) and whipping them into shape. This story would be regarded as an absolute classic had it appeared as the opener to season twenty.

Bishop adopts a pleasurable narrative device as we see much of the book from Nyssa's point of view via her diary, which she has just started to try and organise her thoughts. Ruling out any comparisons with Bernice's diary extracts, this is written in a much more professional, businesslike fashion, none of the pop culture references and frivolities, just hard as nails emotions. I loved these sections with every fibre of my being; Bishop nailed Nyssa so perfectly you could practically hear Sarah Sutton saying the lines. During these brief glances into the mind of the orphaned Trakenite we see just how badly she really is dealing with all the tragedy, Adric's death proving further upheaval and the loss of Tegan even more so. It deals very sensitively with her feelings of loneliness and her awkwardness with travelling alone with the Doctor. All this is great stuff, real character development, perfectly fitting into its chosen era and genuinely enhancing the character. It rounds of Nyssa as one of my favourites, bar none.

There are some ghastly shocks throughout the book for Nyssa that I shan't elaborate on for spoiler reasons but needless to say we are given a great deal of background for the character and not all of it is pretty.

This is another superbly written book by David Bishop who is fast on his way to becoming my most reliable of authors. He achieved three amazing things with this book that once again proved to me just how awful many of these PDAs are (in comparison).

One, he made the fifth Doctor a fascinating character without sacrificing who he was on screen. This is still the friendly uncle you love but don't want to hang around with but Bishop wisely concentrates on all the aspects of Davison's characterisation that works. He wears his half moon specs (somehow I always love that... must be Frontios), rubs shoulders with the aristocracy, remains breathlessly heroic throughout. What's more Bishop injects him with vigour for life that is quite infectious, heartily tucking into his kippers, bluffing his way into Queen Victoria's affections, desperate to throw himself into action...

But it was his affection for Nyssa that shined through here more than anything else. There is one scene where he forces her to confront her past head on that quite took my breath away, the power of that scene alone proves what an electrifying combination these two make. He is so honest with her, to a point where he might seem callous but he is just trying to get her to open out. The Doctor always had a weakness of orphans (Vicki, Victoria, even Adric) and there is an intimacy there that feels stronger than his usual warmth for his companions, something akin to what he felt for Susan. It made his fears for her life in this book all the more gripping.

Two, Bishop manages to explore the world of Victorian Britain without it ever feeling like old hat. Astonishing really when you think how many Doctor Who books are set in this glorious period, one of my all time favourites I hasten to add.

And how else to give this a new angle but to go straight to the top, to Queen Victoria herself. A risky venture and one that is pulled off with great aplomb when you hear the gloriously authentic sounding dialogue and courtly behaviour. The Queen is delightfully strong willed and humourless and her feelings of loss are quite believable. When the Doctor is assigned a permanent position under her Majesty's rule I knew I was in love with this book. It is as much about the Queen as it is about Nyssa, their mirroring emotions and nobility causing me to examine both characters for similarities. Things threatened to derail in the last third as the Queen actually gets in on the action but even that proves quite dynamic and realistic given the background of the novel.

I loved all the scenes at Windsor though, lots of gorgeous descriptions of the surroundings and of the conduct of the day. Strange that no novel has ever dared to team up the Doctor and the Queen before because it makes for a highly engaging relationship.

Three, it manages to be a genuinely scary book with some rather unpleasant passages. The very premise of the book is quite disgusting, the reason the portal to the afterlife is opened in the first place proving extremely discomforting. Hardly a surprise there... Bishop takes regular delight in rubbing our faces in the shit of society and seeing how much it repulses us.

The very idea of the dearly departed returning to haunt is disturbing and for many characters in the book even more so. It is rather uncomfortable to see Adric back in action especially since the Doctor and Nyssa are still coming to terms with his death. The book forces the characters to confront the nature of the 'ghosts' deaths, a shock revelation in the prologue causing considerable upset for several characters.

As James recounts his life in The Lock however, you get a true glimpse at how utterly barbaric the Victorians really could be. Pioneers of invention true but also astonishingly crude when it comes to the ills of the mind. Suspending a boy over a mercury pool until the evil inside of him bleeds out is unthinkably cruel.

As the book ploughs on things become more and more unpleasant for the characters, the passages as concerned with the psychological horror as well as the body horror. Poor Nyssa is put through hell.

I haven't even mentioned the well-defined secondary characters or the atmospheric setting of Lanark yet. Many of the characters are treated to Bishop's trademark depth, especially the military types who usually populate these sorts of books with no character whatsoever. I thought Vollmer and Ponseby were both wonderful, not to mention Doulton. James Lees was the best though, the medium through people abused to hear the voices of their loved ones. He makes for a scary and tragic character; I was quite pleased as to his fate.

Empire of Death continues the fine run of PDAs we have seen since Wolfsbane so I am rather optimistic about their future. Mind you I have said that before and we were lumbered with Heritage and Loving the Alien so who knows.

What we have here is another gripping book, which makes three for three where the BBC books are concerned this year. Already we are doing better than 2003. If I had any issues with Empire of Death it would be the hasty conclusion and explanation of one plot but that has already been set up in the series itself so I was willing to let it slide considering all the other things it get so right.

For those of you who hated The Domino Effect (so that is everyone but me then) this will be an excellent return to form for the writer.

Supplement, 8/11/05:

Whoa, this book has come in for some harsh criticism and I realise this will make me sound like something of a BBC Books apologist (like I don't already!) but on my second reading I still really enjoyed it. Given the vehemence of others comments I expected to find this re-read a trying experience but there is something about David Bishop's writing that I find extremely appealing.

Mind you from a professional standpoint I have to admit there were frequent grammar and spelling mistakes that should make the copy editor blush! Page 181 has two ugly sentences in the same paragraph and page 235 is just as awkward. I don't expect miracles but some of this book's best prose is hampered by unspotted language errors.

One of the greatest criticisms against Bishop is his prose style, which I believe has been described as "eating cardboard". I think this is unfair; Empire of Death is certainly more vividly drawn than The Domino Effect and on the same level as his previous books Amorality Tale and Who Killed Kennedy. Lloyd Rose and David Bishop both draw a picture of Victorian London in one of their books, the former includes smells, sights, sounds and emotions and the latter merely describes what is visible. David Bishop doesn't want to get all New Adventures-y and deep, he wants to spin a good yarn and his surface descriptions, brisk pace and bouncy dialogue are perfectly adequate. And it isn't as if Bishop neglects atmospheric descriptions ("It was just as the sun was just beginning to bruise the gloaming...") he just doesn't get bogged down with them and instead opts to concentrate on his characters and their internal struggles. Besides this light prose makes this an enjoyably quick read.

And in this case it is Nyssa who gets the limelight and not before time. Unfortunately there are only two Nyssa fans in this lonely universe we inhabit (me and that guy from SFX who enjoys masturbating over her on a regular occasion) and her development here has been skipped over, quite unfairly. Rather than moaning about the dry prose of her diary entries what people should be acknowledging is the sheer inadequacy of Eric Saward's script editing. Here is a book that bravely tackles Nyssa's reaction to her father's death, Adric's death, Tegan's departure and the deeper sense of isolation these horrors have impressed upon her character. Why the hell weren't these dealt with in season twenty? Great ideas, ripe for drama and stressing the serialised feel Saward pushed the series in... their absence is a confusing anomaly. The series was so obsessed with the past it had forgotten the rather interesting present it had created.

Nyssa is sorely neglected in her post-series adventures, usually pushed to the sidelines, possessed or mummified for centuries. Bishop leaps on the gap between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity and allows Nyssa to go solo and without Tegan's bossy presence she is given the chance to breathe. And she shines. No she isn't loud or opinionated or arrogant and it would be so easy to twist her into a mock Tegan character just to bring some fireworks into the story but Bishop remains truthful to Sarah Sutton's portrayal, allowing Nyssa to be intelligent and inquisitive and appalled at the horrors of the universe. Being a novel we get the rare opportunity to see what is going on her mind and it is not a pretty place at this point in her life. The yawning sense of loss is palpable and with only the Doctor to confide in (who has larger, world-in-danger problems to solve) she turns to a journal to confess her inner turmoil. Some scenes are striking because Nyssa gets to emote without histrionics, her reaction to Adric's ghost and her readiness to accept her father's presence despite the fact it is utterly implausible is very revealing of her fragile mind.

There is one scene between the Doctor and Nyssa where he provokes her to open out which felt a tiny bit forced (although I'm certain Davison and Sutton would have made something special out of the material) but it leads to the very simple description of the two of them talking all morning, two equals, enjoying each others company and sharing their life together. It could have been great if Tegan hadn't returned and there had been a competent script editor (look at Spare Parts). This is one of the rare occasions were Nyssa is the perfect companion for the fifth Doctor and not just because she is as boring as she is.

There is also some competent characterisation of the secondary characters as well which Bishop seems particularly adept at. Who could forget the couple that only appeared in two scenes in Amorality Tale and rediscovered their love because of their fear of the situation they were in... only to be killed in each other's arms? Painfully touching. There was nothing that moving in Empire of Death (except possibly Nyssa's reaction to her mother's appearance and the news that she killed her during her birth) but there was something about Vollmer's story about his failing marriage thanks to a tragic miscarriage and Hawthorne's escape from his criminal past into the army that rings true. Vollmer was my standout character this time because of his dedication to duty but willingness to use his brain as well and his moving letter home to his wife when he thinks he is going to die is very touching. Bishop follows this through with a heart-warming closure for him and James.

The most jarring aspect of Empire of Death is how it suddenly drops its spiritualism angle about forty pages from the end and abruptly becomes an alien invasion tale. It disappoints because the book has spent so long convincing the reader that the light in Cora Linn is a passage to the afterlife and dealing with various characters and their reactions to greeting their deceased loved ones. It would have been so much braver to continue this theme and prove the existence the afterlife in Doctor Who... an alien invasion is too much of an easy copout rather than dealing with this potentially sticky subject. It also means we only have forty pages to deal with these aliens who, in that amount of page space, we predictably learn very little. A shame because the few snatches we see of them and their appraisal of human beings (disgust at those who abused their ambassador and who killed their unborn young and threw them into the river) prove quite interesting. Who might be capable of great evil but as the Doctor points out "they're just children."

The one criticism I really don't understand is those that call the story boring but I guess this is just because it deals with topics I am interested in. Possession and spiritualism are very important in my life because my mother is a spiritualist and held many seances when I was younger. And I am obsessed with the Victorians and anything to do with that era and any book that has the audacity to drag the Queen into the story in such an engaging way gets the thumbs up from me. What Bishop captures so vividly is the evolution of science and attitude in this progressive era, the Victorians want to lay claim to the afterlife for Christ sakes! Add to this mix a bubbly fifth Doctor on form (and how often does that happen?) who seems to relish the story, the chance to delve into a fascinating mystery and help his companion through the most emotional chapter in his life. Had Davison gotten material this strong I would declare him a triumph. Oh and it's set in Scotland! I love Scotland!

Empire of Death isn't a perfect novel (the ending as I have mentioned takes a lurch into the predictable) but it tries bloody hard for 90% of its length to keep the reader flipping the pages. Bishop's dialogue is as sharp as ever and he dots about some fascinating facts about the novel.

Bishop's best for the BBC Books yet and it still manages to glow in a year full of very good PDAs.

Give it another try.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 30/6/04

I have thoroughly enjoyed all David Bishop's previous books, even the much derided Domino Effect. His Unbound audio was top notch, with a denouement that lingers in the memory for ages. The announcement of another novel from an author who is close to becoming one of my favourites, was greeted with a cheer from this reader. Added expectation was raised with the 5th Doctor/Nyssa pairing, supernatural elements, and Victorian times and places.

I have no problem with magic in Doctor Who. This is a fantasy genre after all. Science fiction can be put on the label too, if you like - but I prefer Doctor Who books with a dousing of fantasy rather than scientific elements. Look at the list of my favourite 40 stories which I compiled late 2003 - I love magic in Doctor Who. Look how well Lloyd Rose has been received, there's plenty out there who love magical Who.

Doctor Who can be so much, to so many different people. The Ratings Guide really emphasizes the gulf in preferences across the board. All the different ranges (whether novels, audios, short stories, comics or TV) refuse to be strait-jacketed into one specific story type for too long. Reviewers are entitled to their opinions, but Doctor Who should never be pigeonholed - it's been so varied over its lifetime for that. There are very few places that Doctor Who cannot go, just so long as it is done with skill and talent.

After the first 50 pages I knew I was on a winner. For a start this "20-30 pages in a sitting" reader had read 50 on the bounce - such was the skill of the writing and the fascination of the subject matter.

I like the way David Bishop makes each day a chapter. Usually I like short, sharp chapters, but this diary approach works well for this story. The events take place over a week, and a logical linear approach is a wonderfully traditional and sensible way of presenting the story. This diary approach also features with the regular entries of Nyssa. Bishop has the voice perfectly, and her outsider view of the queen's household is very interesting.

The 5th Doctor/Nyssa pairing work very well in print, and it's nice to see a story uncluttered by too many companions. It's very rare that the 5th Doctor fails in print. His easy, laid-back character works particularly well it seems. It is Nyssa who comes off best though. Thanks to her visions (which crop up at regular intervals in the narrative) it is her background and personality that shine through.

The book is populated with good supporting characters. I specifically enjoyed the garrison stationed at Corra Linn. The author cleverly paints each personality as the story moves along. The likes of Vollmer and Hawthorne emerge as real people - not army stereotypes. Queen Victoria's household is similarly handled expertly. I kept seeing Judi Dench as Victoria, having seen Mrs Brown recently. There is John Brown here though, with only Ponsonby as the major guide during the Windsor scenes.

The psychic - James Lees - looks to be the main supporting character, until he disappears up to Scotland before anybody. He's largely absent from the second half of the book - even though his influence is still present.

The two major settings of this novel - Windsor and Scottish Lowlands - provide a rather different look at Victorian Britain than is usually presented. So many times the dark underbelly is the centre of the action - it's rather refreshing to move in more exalted circles here. Also considering the title of the story, and it's dealings with the afterlife, this was far from the bleak tale I was expecting.

I came away pleased that I had read Empire of Death. For those amongst Doctor Who fans who like a strong, imaginative, well written tale - it's not all that bad. It's not particularly earth shattering, it just represents a good telling of a story type of the kind Doctor Who excels at.

Another success then for David Bishop, is not his best book. He is one of the greatest authors we have gracing the range at present. I truly hope he carries on for many years to come, writing excellent, dependable Doctor Who stories. 7/10


Three out of Five by Jamas Enright 27/1/05

This was the first Doctor Who book I had read for a while, and with this one hit a severe gear change. Previously I was reading a nice book with a humourous touch, and dived into prose that's dark and discussing the bleakness of death.

From a lightly humourous touch to prose that's dark and discussing the bleakness of death. Yeesh. If books don't grab me right away it usually takes me about 100 pages hard slog to get into it. As it did here. That said, the middle of the book was worth getting into, and I found myself really enjoying Empire of Death, looking forward especially to the soldiers up in Scotland and the events they were caught up in. Not to say that the Doctor and Nyssa scenes with Queen Victoria weren't worth paying any attention to, as they are.

However, you'll note that I use the words 'middle of the book'. Unfortunately, sooner or later, we must head to a climax and revelations about the reality of the situation. This lets the book down as David Bishop tries to keep momentum going and find an ending that fits with the rest of the novel. Considering that the middle of the book doesn't have to be reality, but that reality has to intrude, the ending does the same and it has trouble fitting anywhere.

Now, if you are a frequent reader of my reviews, you might have trouble believing the next part is not meant condescendingly, but it isn't. David Bishop makes every effort in his characterisation in making the Doctor and Nyssa believable, especially Nyssa, in particular getting them to deal with Adric's death. Not many other authors would try this, nor in such depth, but it forms the core arc of their characters, and David Bishop's attempt is extremely commendable. That said, one does wonder if this was really needed. Yes, fandom is in a constant state of reevaluation of past material, but was anyone really needing to reassess Adric's death and what it meant to them? Not I, and I'm more than willing to give any fandom reconsideration a go.

Of the other characters, I quite liked James Lees (and it might not be a bad idea to have the Historical Notes earlier because that character had a certain historical impetus to live up to), but didn't care for Baroness von Luckner at all (even less so the second version of her). In the other part of the storyline, rather than present a whole army, David Bishop concentrates on just a few characters, and does them well, making them believable and enjoyable. As I said I really liked this part of the story, and looked forward to revisiting them.

So, Empire of Death takes some getting into, and the ending is rather irritating, but the middle part is very well worth reading.